New Country

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Review by Samuel L. Leiter

 

 

Six characters, all fast talking and Southern fried, inhabit New Country, actor and stand-up comedian Mark Roberts’s “unfiltered comedy,” being given its world premiere at the Cherry Lane in an enthusiastically acted, high-decibel production. Problem is, amusing as they sometimes are, these six characters—one played by Roberts himself—are in search of a play that never quite materializes.

New Country sets us down in a Nashville hotel room, where the occupants are getting ready to celebrate the bachelor party of good ole boy Justin Spears (David Lind), a globally famous country music star. As his way-too-obvious name suggests, Justin’s your typical ungrateful, self-destructive, hell-raising, spoiled, arrogant, and selfish celebrity. He’s accompanied by two of his groomsmen, his irritated managerial troubleshooters, Paul (Malcolm Madera), tall, slim, and pencil-mustached, and the fireplug-like Chuck (Jared Culverhouse).

Next on the scene is Ollie (Stephen Sheffer), the oily young bellhop, an obsessive fan of Justin’s ready to do anything to get him to listen to his demos. Ollie’s followed by Justin’s Uncle Jim (Mark Roberts), a sixty-three-year-old, diabetic redneck looking like a refugee from “Duck Dynasty,” bald, with a bushy gray beard, baseball cap, hunting jacket, and camo pants. In his arms is an inflatable sex doll whose presence practically makes her another character (Jim even delivers a long monologue to her, calling her “Wanda June Whitmore”). The real sixth character doesn’t arrive until midway through in the person of Sharon (Sarah Lemp), Justin’s ex-fiancée, a beautiful biker chick he cheated on; after making an extended red herring entrance, we learn why she’s come all this way to seek her own form of redemption.

The circumstances—in which blackmail, booze, bong smoking, and a loud bang figure—coil around Paul and Chuck’s strained working relationship with Justin, Uncle Jim’s suicidal tendencies (an assault rifle gets a lot of byplay), Sharon’s bitterness toward Justin and her tender mercies toward Jim, and Ollie’s devious machinations. Eventually, secrets and lies are bared, and, with the help of a heavy-handed video ex machina plot contrivance, everyone gets what they deserve.

Structurally, the play, with a long central scene between Jim and Sharon, seems to have been designed to spotlight the lonely old geezer, even though he’s essentially a secondary character. The attempt to wring pathos from his grief over a lost loved one is particularly weak. Plausibility is not the playwright’s long suit, which seems to lie mainly in his gift for writing flavorfully artificial dialogue that crackles like fireworks with every other word a cuss or off-color remark. When Paul, for instance, tries to settle the (unseen) bride-to-be’s jittery nerves by telling her it’s not fair to burden a free spirit like Justin with responsibility, he says it’s “Like handin’ a scarecrow a book of matches then gettin’ miffed when he comes home in an ashtray.” Folksy, and often hilarious, wisecracks—including vulgarities you have to look up in the Urban Dictionary—are everywhere, although usually with words unsuited for a family website.

The staging by David Harwell (who also designed the standard-issue hotel room) pumps the energy from Roberts’s script into an all-cylinders-firing performance, although not all of the shouting’s necessary. Perhaps, like the scenes from old Westerns shown on the room’s TV screen at the beginning and end (including highlights from High Noon and Shane), he sees the play like a series of shootouts, with shouts and smartass repartee taking the place of bullets.

As Justin, David Lind is suitably obnoxious, but if he were a real singing star someone would have straightened out his slouch by now. Also, his jeans and plaid shirt look (Heather Baumbach did the otherwise fine costumes) is too low rent for such an obvious narcissist. Sarah Lemp, sleek in black jacket and jeans, makes her exaggerated role believable and grounded; Jared Culverhouse and Malcolm Madera bounce their lines off one another with convincing aplomb; Stephen Sheffer is suitably creepy; and Wanda the doll deserves kudos for exposing herself so bravely. The takeaway is Roberts’s foul-mouthed, dirty-teethed Uncle Jim, whose antics and vocabulary cover a hidden vulnerability that makes him, not Justin, the actual center of the play. He’s entitled. He wrote the damned thing, after all.

New Country

Cherry Lane Theatre  38 Commerce Street, NYC

Through June 20

*Photos: Clay Anderson

 

 

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